Treaty rejection will reduce Ireland to minority of one in Union

Wed, Jun 18, 2008, 01:00

OPINION:Going back to the drawing board and getting a better deal is not going to happen, writes Brigid Laffan.

THE ELECTORATE has voted against two European treaties in eight years. The latest vote is much more decisive than 2001 because of the level of turnout and margin of victory. Ireland's national consensus on Europe is over. Successive governments successfully positioned Ireland as a committed member state and in turn the EU provided Ireland with a strong anchor in a rapidly changing world. That anchor is now adrift of its moorings. We have taken a leap in the dark.

It is important to begin to work out just what the implications of the defeat of the Lisbon Treaty are for Ireland and Europe. Predictably there is disappointment and shock among the governments and European institutions. The political and diplomatic energy that went into crafting this treaty was driven by real challenges facing Europe internally and in the international system. It also represented a sophisticated and tough compromise across a broad spectrum of national interests and concerns. Thus, returning to the drawing board and getting a different or better deal is not going to happen. The other 26 member states will not reopen this treaty.

The roadmap for the EU and for Ireland's relations with the other member states in the aftermath of the No will be played out politically. The politics will be tough and the stakes high. The political dynamics are in flux but the broad contours are becoming very clear.

The other member states will proceed to ratification. Every ratification is a national process and the other member states have every right to ratify an international treaty that they willingly entered into. The question we were asked was whether we wanted to change the Irish Constitution so as to ratify the treaty. We were not asked and could not expect to decide on this treaty for 450 million Europeans.

There are only two possibilities that other member states may stall on ratification. Gordon Brown will come under considerable pressure from the Tories to abandon the ratification process. This is highly unlikely both for domestic reasons and the UKs relationship with the other member states. I predict that the UK will ratify.

The other state that might stall is the Czech Republic. The treaty has been sent to the Czech constitutional court and will have to return to the Czech Parliament once the constitutional court has completed its deliberations. Czech president Vaclav Kalaus is deeply sceptical and has already welcomed the Irish No. His party is strong in the Senate.

Prime Minister Topolanek, on the other hand, is keen that ratification proceeds. The Czech Republic takes over the presidency for the first half of 2009. As a new member state, they will want to shine just as Ireland did during its first presidency in 1975. Although less clear-cut, I would also predict that the Czech Republic will ratify.

It is likely that the European Council meeting this week will send out a strong signal that ratification will proceed in all other member states. By October or November, Ireland will find itself in a minority of one in the European Union. This has never happened before. Just what happens then will be decided by the member states working together and working bilaterally with Ireland to see what the options are. Although isolated, every effort will be made to accommodate Ireland and the concerns of the Irish electorate in some way.

The Union is consensus driven. This norm is deeply engrained in the way the member states operate. Partnership and sensitivity to domestic concerns are central to how the EU works. That said, the other member states will not give up on the advances that they have made in the treaty. The choices facing Ireland will become stark.

The options appear to me as follows:

First, the Taoiseach has already been asked to outline the reasons for the Irish No and what might be done to address these concerns. This is with an eye to a Nice I and II scenario.

A package would be agreed that involved both European and domestic elements. This would be very difficult to construct. In this scenario the electorate would be asked to vote but on a different question.

A re-run of the referendum appears to me highly unlikely. The only reason that I do not entirely rule it out is that politics are now to the fore. The two-level nature of contemporary Irish politics, domestic and EU, have been brought sharply into focus. As the implications of the Irish No are played out politically at the European level, we cannot rule out a change of mind in Ireland. Politics is never static.

The second option, and the one that appears to me most likely at this juncture, is that the treaty will apply to 26 states with a bilateral treaty setting out Ireland's relations to the 26. Just how this will be accomplished is far from clear but the Union has long experience of accommodating those states that want or need special arrangements.

The existing Union is replete with "opt-in" and "opt-out" clauses. This would deliver Ireland into a second tier of EU engagement, something that was always regarded as against our essential interests.

The other member states will make every effort to accommodate Ireland's needs and concerns but there are limits to accommodation as the EU is a partnership of 27 states and the needs of one will never be allowed trump the needs of the Union.

Much as been made over the last few days of a disconnect between the Irish electorate and the political elite. There is another disconnect and that is between the Irish electorate and Ireland's experience of EU membership. The stark message of the poster in red from fringe organisation Cóir, "Do not be bullied: Vote No" is in sharp contrast to Ireland's actual experience of EU membership.

Ireland was not bullied in or by the European Union. Rather it found an external scaffolding that has helped this small state reverse its historical experience of domination.

Forgetting to remember is foolhardy in any society.

Brigid Laffan is professor of European Politics at UCD and is a member of the Alliance for Europe, one of the Yes campaign groups